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Sunday, August 28, 2005


A Day in the Life of a Game Designer

It may come as a shock to those of you who don't know me, but I design games for a living. Hey, it's not like I make a decent living from drawing cartoons. At any rate, when folks hear about my profession, they invariably say something like, "It must be great to play games all day." Well, yeah, we play games. Usually, the same game, over and over again. We play it over and over again because it either (A) is broken and someone has to figure out how to fix it or (B) sucks and someone has to make not suck so badly. Every so often we get to play someone else's game to see what other folks are doing right or wrong.

But it's work - folks are depending on me to come up with answers that will make a product that other people will want to buy and therefore justify my continued collection of a salary. It's often hard work, because it depends on the designer's ability to come up with flashes of insight on a regular basis.

That doesn't mean I don't get to play games "for fun," but that has to happen on my own time. You'd think that I'd get burnt out on games, but they're still my favorite form of entertainment, particularly when I'm enjoying playing a game with some good friends. So if you're ever in my neck of the woods, drop on by and we'll play a game.

Friday, August 26, 2005



I was going to post about some things I learned while working with Warren Spector, but I've lately been dealing with some problems with my digestive system that will require surgery. So when I'm not dealing with pain, I seem to lack the energy to do anything. I'm really behind on my cartoon schedule. Never fear, I already have Monday's cartoon drawn and ready for posting, though I'll be puting it up a bit early since that's when my surgery is scheduled. As I understand it, this is a fairly routine procedure, much like an appendectomy, so I should be back on my feet in no time. So thanks for your support and keep spreading the word about Gamecreature!! :)

Sunday, August 21, 2005


Game On!

Welcome to another week of Gamecreature! For those of you who don't know, my goal is to have new content up by Monday every week. That usually means I'll be uploading it sometime on Sunday, but I can't say exactly when. Suffice it to say, there will always be a new comic and a message related to it posted here every Monday.

Those of you fortunate enough to live near Chicago may have seen the Game On! exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. If you haven't yet and would like to, you'd better get a move on, because there's only a few weeks left before it closes. The exibit is a collection of working video games, starting with Pong and going through the latest video game releases.

What they do right is give visitors a chance to actually play these games, many of which have not been seen in a long time. Folks like me who like to reminisce about games they enojoyed in the past will be in heaven as they put their hands on games like Galaga, Missile Command and Discs of Tron. It also exposes folks to games they would not otherwise have seen and lets them try those as well.

What they could have done better at was provide a little more background. The games are there, in chronological order, but little infromation is given as to why the games are the way they are. Why, for instance, was so much effort put into creating the animations for Dragon's Lair and why did that particular game use a large video disc player? (The answer is that each and every game has been and always will be trying new things to put on the best possible "show" for potential customers. No video game hardware available at the time could possibly show animations of the quality that they wanted to show with Dragon's Lair - the laser disc player was the only possible option. I think some vendors actually experimented with video tape players, but I have never seen any machines actually use something like that.)

All in all, I was pleased to see that video games were given such a great presentation at the museum. I hope that the next time such an endeavor is attempted, visitors will walk away with more of their questions answered.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Gaming Zen

Why do we play games? We play them to have fun, of course. Games are meant to be entertaining. However, sometimes our competitive nature gets the best of us and games cease to be fun. If the game itself is so poorly designed that it is more frustrating than entertaining only compounds the problem. But sometimes factors come together and games manage to transcend obstacle and become a little piece of joy. I call that gaming zen.

One example of this was when I was playing a boardgame with some friends one afternoon. The game was called Broadway, which is a rather clever twist on Monopoly because every player has the potential to own a percentage of every property on the board. Because of this, everyone has a stake in the success of the properties that they own a substantial percentage of. When a property is failing, there is a lot of interaction between the players to try and keep it afloat until it can start delivering profits. The game ends when the last property closes and all of the funds are divided among the players. Then folks count up the money to see who won.

Except, when I was counting up the money, I discovered I didn't care who won. I realized that I'd had fun and winning didn't matter to me. That's not to say I've never felt that way with other games - I have. But that was certainly the first time I realized that you could play a game for it's own sake and just have fun. I've made it my goal to try and give that experience to everyone who plays one of my games.

I'd love to hear about your own experiences with gaming Zen. Let me know.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Bells and whistles

This week I'd like to take a little time to talk about things that are added to games to help create a mood. It's obviously important to add those little visuals and sounds to a game that help improve the experience for the player. However, if there's no game play, then no amount of bells and whistles will help the game.

A good example is the Futurama game. The general consensus is that the game did a great job of capturing the jokes, voice actors and visual style of the popular show (okay, well I liked it). The game, on the other hand, failed miserably in giving players the experience of being in the world of Fry and Bender. If you took away all of the visuals and sounds, and substitued generic audio and actors, you would be hard pressed to identify the game at all.

The most important part of a game is how it plays. This is what makes it entertaining and keeps the players coming back for more. Your game play becomes the foundation on which you build from to create a truly memorable game experience.

Do you have any experiences to share? Let me know.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Changing with the times

I've added some ads to this site. We'll try it for a couple of months and see how it goes. I'm not too excited about the AI so far. Put words like game and games all over the site and it comes up with an ad for cartoon smocks. Gee whiz!

Monday, August 08, 2005


Reduce. Reuse. Recycle

As you might have guessed from this week's cartoon, I'm going to be talking about recycling in game design. Wait, before you move on to another site, let me explain. From the start I've wanted this site to be my "bully pulpit" for game related topics, to sort of spread the word about how games are made and how they can be made better. Hopefully, those of you who are in the game business (or would like to be) might gain some nuggets of wisdom that will make your lives easier. For everyone else, I hope this will be an informative look into the whole game-making process. Don't worry, I'll be posting a little something for everyone later this week. And now on with the show!

All games have limitations. These are called rules. When making a game that is to be published and distributed, there are other limitations to consider, practical limitations that force you to fit the game you want to make into the game you can afford to make. Time, money and other resources force you to become a little more creative with what you have available. Components merge together and otherwise perform double and triple-duty so that you can a fun and entertaining game that still shows a profit at the end of a quarter. You recycle.

For instance, you have a game where the hero fights the bad guys, who obligingly all wear identical green jump suits and masks. One character model has now become an army! Of course, all of these bad guys fight exactly the same way and will always fall over when the hero hits them twice with his patented twister punch. But suppose you want a different opponent for the player to fight? Someone that's tougher and is smarter? In most games, there are only so many characters budgeted, so if you still want to have that giant electric penquin at the end of the fourth level, you're going to have to make do with the jump-suited bad guys. So you change the color of the suit from green to red - and you've got a new bad guy!

Now the best way to make this work as painlessly as possible is to plan ahead. When you go to buy a car you can get one with a radio or without one, but even if you don't get a radio, the slot for a radio is still there on the dash board. It's easier to make a car with space for a radio than to make two different cars, one for radio listeners and one for the other folks. When designing your game, if you want a basic character model to perform many different actions, then make one that can do everything you want, then disable and enable the particular features you need. I'm over-simplifying this of course, but the idea is to come up with ways to get the most use out of what you're given.

Another thing to keep in mind is to keep it simple! As you're merging bits together, try to streamline them and keep an eye out for bits that don't seem to fit. The key to recycling is not just reusing old things, but getting the best use out of them.

Friday, August 05, 2005


Play Nice

When my kids get together to play competitive games, they get too, um, competitive. It's not long before the tempers flare and accusations fly. My daughter, trying to understand, said "but when my friends get together and play, we don't have any problems."

"Exactly," I pointed out to her. "You're not friends with your brother."

So until my children can learn to be friends while playing on the Xbox, they can no longer play competive games. They can only play cooperative games where everyone works toward a common goal. We'll see how long that lasts. I'd dearly love to get some suggestions on some decent 2-player cooperative games on the Xbox - post your ideas below!

Monday, August 01, 2005


Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Wow, has it been a week already? I know you're anxious to read my latest words of wisdom, so let's get to it.

Soon after I began making computer games, I had heard a lot about the subject of "girls and games." Many folks in the game industry were scratching their heads and trying to figure out why the majority of gamers were guys and that those of the female persuasion weren't attracted to the offerings. Some theorized that the games needed more "girl content" and we soon saw a rash of games filled with ponies and shopping and an overwhelming shade of pink. Not surprisingly, these efforts didn't take off.

In a small way, the content might have been the problem, but the developers looked at it in the wrong way. You cannot take a game that has been designed for boys, change the tanks to pink ponies and expect the new product to suddenly appeal to girls. It's still a game designed for boys!

It turns out that I accidently stumbled across the secret to making games that appeal to both genders when I was working on the 3D Ultra pinball series. I probably would've discovered it earlier if I had cared to look. The secret to making games that cross the gender lines is to stop making games for boys.

Sounds simple, right? I admit when I was designing my games, I didn't have a specific audience in mind. I was just trying to make a fun game. I think we were all surprised when we found out that the game was just as popular among female players as male.

I don't know if this is still true, but for quite some time, the most popular game on Windows was - solitaire. This might have had a little to do with the fact that every windows computer had this already installed, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the game is very approachable - you can start it up any time you want, and leave without remorse if you have more important things to do. It always offers the same level of challenge no matter how many games you play, and you don't feel threatened by it (unlike Minesweeper, where one false move results in instant death).

Well, I hope I've given you something to think about. I'll be back next week with another cartoon and some more words about this crazy business I'm in. Be sure to leave a note to let me know you're out there or I may stop doing these.


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